REVIEW: WIDE SARGASSO SEA, JEAN RHYS, BBC4, 2006
BBC 4's filmic adaptation of Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea is an exotic joy, stunningly filmed with glorious, lush production values and strong acting performances all-round. The musical scoring is especially noteworthy - evocative, mood-making, quite brilliant.
The production company behind this venture is Kudos - best-known for the brilliant BBC series Spooks - and there is definitely a contemporary feel to this, even though it is a period piece. The original novel, written in 1966 by Jean Rhys as a prequel to Jane Eyre, charts the story of Antoinette Cosway, (known in Jane Eyre as Bertha Mason), Edward Rochester's first wife - the notorious madwoman in the attic who has become a powerful feminist symbol of female entrapment by patriarchy in the nineteenth century. The novel is part of what is seen in literary circles as the 'writing back' movement, where modern writers are inspired to write their own alternate versions of well-known stories. In this instance, Rhys crafted a work, which resurrected the muted voice of Bertha Mason. Much of the tale is relayed as her first person narrative - although notably Rhys has given Rochester a narratorial voice too.
The novel is seen as an important work in postcolonial studies, exploring the life of a Caribbean White Creole - a woman living on the cusp of society, fully accepted by neither blacks nor whites. Rhys also explored the latent sexism of Charlotte Bronte's work, in that Rochester is granted a second chance - unlike his poor wife. Arguably Jane, while something of a feminist icon herself of course, is perceived as the acceptable face of womanhood - in stark contrast to Bertha, whose unbridled passions set her apart from society, a malignant symbol of non-femininity.
In Wide Sargasso Sea, after a passionate but brief courtship and an initially happy honeymoon, the mood soon sours as Rochester, led on by Antoinette's sinister half-brother, comes to believe that she, like her mother, is mad. Of course his fears are based on his own insecurity as a rather uptight English gentleman, who feels he is out of control, cut adrift on a strange Jamaican plantation, peopled by black servants and talk of magic. He is also distressed at his animal passions - again, a sense of losing control. His subsequent cruel rejection of Antoinette is shown to be the primary reason for her mental 'instability' - a punishment for her ardent, sensuous nature.
We don't miss a beat with this BBC4 adaptation, as scripted by Stephen Greenhorn. Brendan Maher's direction is striking; cinematography is simply stunning, augmented by lingering shots of mountains wreathed in magical blue mist. We have a powerful sense of the enchanted yet uncertain world Rochester feels he has found himself in. Hand-held camera-work and zoom lenses, in addition to some quickfire editing, occasionally intercutting various scenes with each other, subtly perpetuate a sense of uncertainty, with sometimes electrifying results.
Rafe Spall plays Rochester. He is portrayed here as a pretty loathsome character, even from the outset, and Spall, to his credit, carries off this role with some aplomb. Rochester is seen to be self-seeking, suspicious of novelty (he fears Jamaica), posh and sarcastic. A true cold fish. He is not trusted by Antoinette's Aunt Cora (Victoria Hamilton) who warns Antoinette - but she is too much in love.
Her passion for Rochester is evoked through a series of close, intimate scenes - the camera lingering on her graceful neck, his hands resting on her belly, and when they are married, by numerous graphic scenes of their love-making. Antoinette's erotic awakening is key to the tale and enacted with delicacy and charm by Rebecca Hall, who is simply wonderful in this role. She is artless, loving and wholly sympathetic throughout.
This is also a tale of Rochester's erotic awakening - but he is less pleased it seems to give vent to his passionate nature, hence he turns to loveless aggression, in a drive to reassert his self-control. He prefers to view Antoinette's free spirit as lunacy, and is suddenly revolted by her sexuality, deemed so unbecoming in an English gentlewoman. Thus he chooses to torment her by having loud sex with the maidservant Amelie within her earshot. He also decides to change her name to Bertha - a splendid scene where Antoinette loudly, angrily grieves the loss of her name, her sense of self, dismantled at will by her domineering husband in a desperate attempt to exert his control, to tame her.
It is genuinely hard to see any redeeming features in Spall's portrayal of Rochester - which is a fair reading of Rhys's novel, even though Rochester is genuinely paranoid amidst his strange surroundings, but proves unwilling to adapt. In the film, Christophine, Antoinette's nanny, played here by Nina Sosanya in fantastic form, is duly chilling in her obvious distaste for Rochester. Amelie (Lorraine Burroughs) is vile to Antoinette, calling her a 'white cockroach' - a term of abuse for a white creole. Antoinette tells Rochester that she has suffered this and other insults, 'white nigger', all her life ... but he is not interested in her harsh and isolating experiences, adrift on the racial margins of society, and he elects instead to defend Amelie, the aggressor in her confrontation with Antoinette.
There is a pleasing symmetry to this film - the opening scenes depict Antoinette/Bertha wandering the long, dark corridors at Thornfield with a candle in hand, awed by the looming portraits of Rochester's ancestors. She sees Rochester sleeping, and tenderly strokes his hand - a scene intercut with snippets recalling their love-making. The memory torments her. Wild-faced she turns and stares at a painting which depicts Spanish Town in Jamaica ... it is a useful framing device through which we enter the past, taking us to the start of the narrative with Rochester's arrival and his first meeting with Antoinette.
The film closes with Antoinette/Bertha staring at a mirror. Rochester tells her they are going home to where she can be looked after, although she reminds him that the doctors will say whatever he wants them to say. Notably we have had no true sign of Antoinette/Bertha's mental disorder by this stage - simply the genuinely-felt outpourings of a girl haunted by fear of rejection and dark memories, now forsaken by the man she loves, in callous fashion.
She is dressed in black, which is a fitting signifier of the mournful loss of her life, of all she loved, in return for unjust incarceration at the hands of a stranger. He asks her to trust him, to which she replies, 'how can I, when I know nothing about you?' Behind her black hat is a vase of vivid red flowers - a colour used in conjunction with Antoinette, representing her passionate nature, and once much-loved by Rochester who at one point insists she wears a low-cut red dress. Red too are the flames which engulf Thornfield and eventually Antoinette/Bertha as the action returns to the film's beginning. Which is in fact the end.
Since Wide Sargasso Sea was first published, in some ways the novel and its tragic protagonist have come to haunt Jane Eyre - just indeed as Bertha herself is a haunting presence in the original novel. This film is a fine companion piece to the current BBC series of Jane Eyre. Although much smaller in scale and scope than the grander Jane Eyre production, in many respects Wide Sargasso Sea is a piece of finer, stronger, braver filmmaking, offering genuine synergies of cinematography, motifs of light, shade and colour, narrative flow, character development and a lustrous, magnificent musical score. It is conceived as an exquisitely styled miniature rather than a sprawling, luxuriant epic, but both works have the potential to inform the other.
Indeed, it would be hugely interesting (and courageous) to see a Jane Eyre adaptation which was genuinely conceived in the light of Jean Rhys's novel; one which highlighted the postcolonial discourses, the sense of 'Otherness', of life at the margins, which is threaded through both these narratives. It would be gratifying too if this mythical adaptation genuinely, unflinchingly reflected on the sorry plight of so many women in the nineteenth century who were cast out of 'decent' society on sometimes unfounded but convenient grounds of madness. (It is well worth reading Elaine Showalter's The Female Malady for a fascinating insight into the dire extent of this practice). But such a scenario is unlikely, as this would entail debunking the romantic heroism of Rochester and would simultaneously destroy the romantic core of Charlotte Bronte's novel, one of the chief reasons for its persistent popularity ... but it would be an exciting venture, all the same.
For reviews of Jane Eyre : Episode 1, 2 and 3 and 4